Emel interviews Carmen Callil

Emel Magazine, a British Muslim lifestyle magazine (Emel is a woman’s name meaning hope, and ML stands for Muslim Lifestyle), has an interview with Virago Press founder Carmen Callil. The website has not yet been updated for the most recent issue, and I don’t think they publish their articles online anyway, so you’ll have to get it to read it. The interview begins with the host allowing her two dogs to sniff around her two guests (the female interviewer and a male photographer), and in response to their dislike and the interviewer’s explanation that the photographer had a traumatic experience involving a dog, replied, “what is wrong with you people?”.

After this welcome, the interview goes fairly smoothly, with talk of why Callil founded the Virago press (the lazy, male-dominated world of early 1970s publishing) and her libertarian philosophy (“I think people ought to do what they want to do”; “I am hostile to people who tell men or women how to behave”). When the interviewer, Myriam Francois Cerrah, brings up the subject of hijab and “the feminist movement’s lack of solidarity with the French Muslim women”, her attitude changes completely:

Expecting a somewhat sympathetic response given her self-acclaimed libertarian outlook, I was somewhat taken aback by her sudden change of mood. Sitting upright in her chair. Carmen suddenly becomes very animated. This is clearly a subject which riles her and she begins to unleash her tirade. … And so she begins: “The attitude of Muslim women in France really bothers me,” she says with a pained look.

Callil went on about her research which “goes all the way back to the French Revolution”, and the battles between “the people who embraced the new ways, and those who embraced the old”, which “came to a head in 1905” with the law of separation of church and state. Ms Cerrah prefers to take her apart about her choice of the term “Muslim women in France” as opposed to French Muslim women, given that many of them were born there and speak French as their first language, while Callil prefers to see them as immigrants who ought to accept their hosts’ culture as they are in “their” country. However, she misses another aspect of the excuse of “separating church from state” in France: why on earth should Muslim women, particularly schoolgirls, now pay the price for past battles between French secularists and an overweening Catholic church?

Callil tells Ms Cerrah that, having lived in a country with “so many immigrants”, she feels “very strongly that immigrants should accept the values of the country into which they arrive. … You need to understand the people you are living with. If you go to a country like France, you need to take on board its history.” She does not seem to appreciate that Muslim immigrants to France were former colonial subjects (in some cases, Algerians who had fought for France), and that the French had certainly not accepted their culture when they invaded their countries. She also fails to acknowledge that, even when Muslim women do shed their hijabs, they are not accepted as French because they are not white (the notorious banlieue ghettos are home to Black as well as Arab people). The British journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown noted that, when she visited French villages with her children, the ignorant peasants “stared at them darkly, arms folded across their chests, refusing to smile or return greetings, some neglecting to serve us in shops”, assuming they were Algerian, and that the British settlers who moved their in search of wine and pretty farmhouses were immune from the demands for total integration.

When Ms Cerrah debunks Callil’s view of the New World - to her, America and Australia - as “places she describes as having a very particular conception of citizenship which requires that new immigrants adopt a pre-formed non-negotiable cultural identity in order to become fully fledged members of society” by pointing out that her experience in the USA, where she saw people freely expressing dual identities such as Irish and Black American, she concedes that the American conception may be closer to what Ms Cerrah described, but “continues to rail against the veil”, insisting that “no-one is stopping you wearing your headscarf out of school” and that “westerners” find it offensive. When she objected to this on the grounds that she was herself a westerner and evidently did not find it offensive, Callil “jumped out of her seat” and declared the interview over and kicked them out.

While I appreciate that they only had so much space, there was at least one photo of the subject on every page, yet there wasn’t one of her in rage mode, which would have been amusing to see. I’m not sure if they did put the inconsistency between her “libertarian” ideas and her attitude to the right of Muslim women to wear what they want, or between being a feminist and demanding that Muslim women, and not men, shed their customary dress, or between the demands for non-white immigrants to “integrate” and the lack of such demands on wealthy white immigrants or the difficulty of integrating when you live in a ghettoised community. It is, however, a very useful insight into the colonial contempt some “feminists” have towards Muslim women, and their wilful blindness towards our women’s aspirations - they seem to want the same things as middle-class white women, namely an education and a career, while these “feminists” are more concerned with the rights of their favoured coloured females to undress, and to smoke and drink like some of their menfolk. The recent Policy Exchange report disapproved of a Saudi scholar who told a Muslim not to call non-Muslims brothers or sisters (when they are not actual siblings), but when women who might call our women “sisters” choose to be their oppressors, it’s easy to see why that scholar took that position.

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